Duck Hunting in June: Biologist Style
Paul Wait, Magazine Editor on 06/18/2015
LOSTWOOD, NORTH DAKOTA — A gentle breeze swept across the grassland prairie as I moved into position. On my ready signal, Tait Ronningen and Mike Slotten, my duck hunting partners for this sunny late spring morning, pushed toward me. If our plan worked, I would have a great chance at a flushing mallard, or maybe a gadwall or wigeon.
I was ready to shoot. With my camera, of course.
I’d met up with Ronningen and Slotten, graduate students employed as summer waterfowl technicians, to search for duck nests in northwestern North Dakota. They are part of a research team studying the effects of oil exploration and production on nesting ducks.
The Bakken oil field has experienced a dramatic rise in activity in recent years because higher oil prices made the use of fracking technology a profitable way to extract crude from the ground. The Bakken stretches across northwestern North Dakota, into Montana and southern Saskatchewan — areas of high importance for breeding ducks.
I’m happy to report, albeit unscientifically and extremely anecdotally, that duck nesting efforts in the grassy field where we searched appeared strong, even in the shadow of three working oil rigs. Of course, we will need to wait for the research results to draw any real conclusions.
To locate nests, the researchers dragged the field with a chain stretched between a pair of all-terrain vehicles. Meanwhile, I ran ahead to attempt to capture the image of a flushing hen. We discovered that one of the nests the guys had previously marked had hatched.
“That’s good,” Ronningen said. “Just not for a picture.”
It took a while to reach the next known nest. On the way to it, the chain bumped a different hen from an unmarked nest, this one made by a wigeon. Ronningen and Slotten quickly found the down-lined nest bowl, counted and candled the eggs to determine how close to hatching they were, and then measured the height of the grass immediately surrounding the nest. Ronningen logged the location into his GPS, and we were off to continue the search.
The ATVs barely moved ahead when a gadwall sprang from the cover. When that nest was fully documented, I looped ahead on foot for the flush of a shoveler from a previously marked nest.
She wasn’t there. However, her eggs were just fine. In fact, they were pipping, which means the ducklings had started to crack out of their shells. So, instead of a photo of the hen rising from the grass, I captured the egg-toothed bill of a shoveler about to hatch.
I clicked away as Ronningen and Slotten went about their work of documenting the duck nest activity in the heart of the breeding grounds. We flushed more hens — a mallard, a blue-winged teal. Gadwalls. Even a pintail. More wigeon.
The engines of the ATVs hardly had time to heat up between stops.
Every time I’m on the prairie during the spring nesting season, I’m always struck by the beauty of the landscape where so many of our ducks hatch. I continue to be amazed at how many hens are hiding in the grass, and how tough it can be to locate nests, even after you see the hen jump. It really does become a quest, an adventure, a hunt.
For a self-proclaimed duck geek like me, a spring trip to the breeding grounds is just as rewarding as a spectacular fall morning in the duck blind.
Oh, and I took 398 images that day, but never captured “the perfect shot.”
But hey, that’s why they call it duck hunting, right?